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Street View: New York City's Doors

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

This post is a Special Research Project of NPR History Dept.


Between November 1975 and September 1976, a man named Roy Colmer decided to photograph New York City's doors. Not all of New York City's doors. No doors in particular, at least at first glance, and in no real particular order. But his aptly named Doors, NYC project amounted to more than 3,000 photos, which now live with the New York Public Library.

If you're like me and want to obsessively look at every single one, the best way to do that is here. But then, I did that so you don't have to. Firstly, note the door on the bottom left. For every dozen-ish nondescript doors, you'll find a little treat — like a poster of a cat ...

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

... or a great store name like "Clogs Of Course" (also bottom left).

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

"He's playful with the very definition of the door. He's shooting chain-link gates, dilapidated doorways with no door, or a door that's been bricked up," says archivist David Lowe, who works with the collection at NYPL.

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

Colmer was like a 1970s Google Street View camera — driving by and snapping whatever serendipitously ended up in the frame. The best images in the collection, in fact, are the ones that have been inadvertently photo-bombed.

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library i
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library
A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

But who was Colmer? And why doors? There's little about him on the Web. He was born in England in 1935 and went to Hamburg, Germany, for artistic training before moving to New York in the '60s. He was a conceptual painter and photographer — MOMA has some of his photos, too — and Lowe speculates this door series may have been inspired by German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

The Bechers were well-known in the art world for their photographic series or typologies, mostly architectural, of things like gas tanks, water towers and, yep, facades. But even if Colmer was inspired by the Bechers, he wasn't entirely derivative. His photos allow for some chaos, a lot like New York. They look like photos taken by someone in love with — and a little bit amused by — his city.

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer/New York Public Library

Colmer noted which streets he photographed — and that helped Lowe at NYPL plot the images on this map.

The coolest part: Each point on the NYPL map also contains a link to the current Google Street View. "It's always a joy when I see something that's still there — which is not often," Lowe says.

You can see the former New York Times building (left pair), and what's there now — or the ostensibly unchanged Time & Life entry (right pair):

The New York Times building and the Time & Life buildings (black-and-white) versus the Google Street View of what stands there today.
Roy Colmer/NYPL and Google Street View

In a little description on its site, NYPL explains that Colmer's Doors, NYC "was essentially conceptual" and "as much an exploration of the serial possibilities of photography as of its ability to capture a place."

Colmer "photographed the city as he moved through it on a daily basis, often by subway, from one neighborhood to another, and from one block to the next," the description reads. He didn't leave behind much more explanation, but in many photos, he still lingers.

And, Lowe adds: "He seemed to have wandered around with his shirt off a lot."

A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library i
Roy Colmer /New York Public Library
A photographic series of New York City's doors, from the Roy Colmer collection at the New York Public library
Roy Colmer /New York Public Library
Correction March 13, 2015

Colmer's birthdate has been corrected.

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